Sunday, April 21, 2013

Three Rivers and the Valley of Fires

This will actually be part one of a three part post... sort of. This post will be the trip report text and a few illustrative photos. I will post photo galleries of Three Rivers Petroglyphs and Valley of Fires very soon after I publish this report. Of course if you stumble across this later, you may have actually seen the two photo galleries first due to the way blog posts are organized with the latest at the top.

Let me also apologize for how my writing changes unpredictably between past and present tense. As I sit to write each day's log, some part is reflection, some relates current events. I'll try to iron this out as I gain more experience blogging.

Wednesday, April 17, 2012

On The Highway

Wind, wind, wind! The weather forecasters said it would die down by Wednesday, but were they ever wrong. The plan had been to drive down to the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in south-central New Mexico. I'd take photos of the ancient rock art and stay in the BLM campground there tonight. Tomorrow I'd go a bit farther up the road to the Three Rivers campground run by the forest service and hike the trail up the mountain. But as they say, "the best laid plans..."

Fighting the headwinds down to Socorro on the Interstate was slow going, but not that bad. I stopped for a Buckhorn Burger at the tavern in San Antonio. But then on the trek east on US-380 it was truly awful and only got worse. I could see towering clouds of white sand off to the south... yes, those White Sands. I knew if I kept to my plan then at Carrizzo I would need to turn south right into the dust and wind, so I thought I'd pull off the highway to evaluate the situation. 

Valley of Fires BLM Recreation Area

The air is full of dust blown up the Tularosa Basin by strong southerly winds.
I stopped at the Valley of Fires BLM Recreation Area just a few miles west of Carrizozo. I'd never stopped before. It is quite nice, situated on a ridge overlooking the lava flow. They have a full campground with RV hook ups; ramadas; showers; very cool, secluded tent camping area; visitor center & bookstore; and an interesting looking interpretive trail. I didn't avail myself of any of those amenities (other than the restroom) due to the ferocious winds, but it looks ripe for a return visit. High summer would not be the time to do that, however. (Spoiler: I returned later on this very trip.)

My buddy Mark had mentioned in a phone call how beautiful Lake Bonita near Ruidoso had been when he'd camped there many years ago, so I thought that would be a good alternative to fighting the wind. It is located within the Sierra Blanca mountains, so might have less wind and blowing dust than the petroglyphs which are right on the plains. 

Sierra Blanca Mountains - Lincoln National Forest

Driving into the Lincoln National Forest I was quickly and harshly reminded of the large forest fire they suffered only last year. I hadn't paid it as much attention as it deserved, as I was preoccupied with the large forest fire closer to home in the Jemez Mountains. The "Little Bear" fire north of Ruidoso was enormous and although it apparently didn't burn directly at Lake Bonita, according to the map I got later at the ranger station, the subsequent floods devastated the lake and surrounding area. [update: the fire burned 44,300 acres and 254 buildings, making it the most destructive wildfire of human structures in the state's history.]

To make a long story (and many miles up and down mountain roads) short, I ended up camping along FS 127A in a dispersed camping area. It was quiet, with pines and firs, but not totally unscathed by the fires and flooding. There was a small herd of wild horses that paid no mind to me as I stopped to take a few photos. Nonetheless, the winds were strong, gusting well into the night even down in the canyon, so no exploring, just cowering in the camper. I hope they were right at the ranger station that the winds will not be as bad on Thursday when I hope to loop around and get to Three Rivers at last. 

I took this photo out my truck window. The horses could have cared less, especially the hungry little one.

Thursday, April 18, 2012

Lincoln National Forest - Forest Road 127A

It was extremely windy for most of the night. Many of the gusts shook the camper violently; some were incredibly powerful. The camper held up very well, I'm happy to report. I thought some animal had carried away my door mat during the night, but discovered it had only been blown about 15 feet way.

Dry camping in a dry canyon north of Ruidoso.

I had been warned that it was going to get down to 25 degrees this morning in the Ruidoso area. Up here in the canyon it got down to 20 according to my thermometer.

It is now 8am and the sun is shining, though not directly on the camper, yet it is still freezing - 28 degrees.  Looks like the winds have come way down. I'll pack up and get on the road so I can hopefully get to the petroglyph area before the afternoon winds, if they indeed come back up. 

On the Road

Driving back into the Ruidoso valley. Wow! The area sure looks lovely when the atmosphere is not filled with dust... like a whole other place. I worry about Ruidoso though, what with the low amount of snow the last few winters and now with the Little Bear fire closing so many of the summer recreation areas, too. Nice drive to Mescalero, where the elevation drops and the forest ends. I can see White Sands to the west. 

There seems to be some wind, but it is not kicking up the dust like yesterday, which is encouraging. I can see some dust in the plains, not the towers like yesterday. Turn north at Tularosa on highway 54. Turn right at Three Rivers Road. It is a paved road to the site.

County highway on the way to Three Rivers with the Sierra Blanca in the background.

Three Rivers Petroglyph Site

The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site, operated by the BLM has a very nice, but somewhat barren, picnic area with shaded tables and a full-time host manning an information booth. Camping is available here, too. He provided me with a trail map, information brochure and suggestion to explore off the trail, as there is more rock art off the path than along it. Over 21,000 petroglyphs have been catalogued at the site. Fortified with an avocado and swiss sandwich I set off with my camera to explore. 

The petroglyph I personally call The Three Rivers with the BLM picnic/campground below.

For those unfamiliar with our petroglyphs in the southwestern US, ancient peoples created figures and symbols on the rocks by scraping or pecking (using one rock as a chisel and a second as a hammer.) They chose rocks, usually volcanic in origin, where the outer layer of the rock had oxidized over the years to form a patina (outer coloration) that is darker than the interior of the rock. This allowed the art to stand out and be seen. This also means that over a long period of time their creations will slowly lose contrast and ultimately disappear.

Some of the petroglyphs are obviously birds, beasts and insects the artists encountered in their daily lives. Cloud and mountain symbols were also created. Other figures appear human; some may represent gods. There are other symbols that we in the modern world can only speculate about, as no one really knows the intent of the ancient artists.

I could wax eloquent for pages on just how amazing and wonderful this place is. As you climb these unassuming rocky hills you begin to see the figures and symbols pecked into the rocks. The number and density is unprecedented in the southwest US. These "hills" are apparently the cores of volcanic vents. The remains of fissures can be seen in the surrounding area. And flows, such as cap the nearby Godfrey Hills. 

The vista from the trail is magnificent. To the east the grasslands and scrub give way to the piñon and juniper of the foothills of the Sierra Blanca, with the eponymous peak as their crown. To the west, across the Tularosa Valley, lie the San Andres Mountains and between here and there the White Sands Missile Range, whose white sands can be seen in the distance to the SW. Lucky for me the skies are clear and the winds moderate. The temps are cool, but my little secret is that I am comfortable as I never took off my long underwear this morning!

Looking southwest from the petroglyph trail. The white strip at the base of the mountains is White Sands. There is a dust devil in the middle distance. The trees shield a ranch house and you can also see a cattle pond. The county highway is also visible in the near distance.

I first heard of the Three Rivers site via the Gambler's House blog. The author, a student and volunteer at Chaco Canyon when he started the blog, has for many years written about the ancient people in the southwestern US and especially Chaco Canyon. When he got a job in Alaska the SW coverage has dropped off, but there is a wealth of information in his blog. 

The petroglyphs are unusual here, sure there are the standard symbols and animal icons, but the style of the depictions seems much fuller and fluid to me. There are cross & dots patterns that are unique to here and some abstract designs that are intriguingly mysterious. I strongly recommend a visit to Three Rivers, though it is, admittedly, out of the way. It took me several years (and a camper acquisition) to make it and I live only about three hours away.

I will post a photo gallery from the site very soon. Depending upon when you read this, it may already be published!

Lincoln National Forest - Three Rivers Campground

Leaving the petroglyph site I drive 8 miles farther east to the Three Rivers Campground. It is nestled right at the boundary of the designated White Mountain Wilderness where the eco-zone transitions to pine and fir forest. Most of the sites are screened from the others by large Alligator Junipers. There is a very small stream along the north edge of the campground which babbles most delightfully as I walk alongside.

My site, #4 at the upper end of the campground.

It is forecast to be clear and cold tonight. I take a few photos of the cloudless sunset. 

Sunset from my campsite. There were lots of stars out later. It was so clear I could see a couple of the moons of Jupiter through my binoculars, but it was so cold I didn't stay outside for long.

Friday, April 19, 2012

And it is indeed cold. The outside temp read 24 when I woke at six this morning. As I sit all cosy with the furnace running and with my coffee, my iPad in my lap writing this, it is all the way up to 25 degrees at 7:30 am. It's a beautiful morning outside, but I think I'll linger in the camper a while longer! Thirty minutes later it is 10 degrees warmer. I should be able get out and enjoy the scenery after breakfast. 

This is the view from my camper this beautiful New Mexico morning.

OK, it warmed up for a nice walk along the creek. There were only a few birds out and about, but the few warblers I heard didn't even show themselves enough for me to get my binocs upon, much less to get a photo. Time to pack up and head to the Valley of Fires before the winds pickup.

The trail that leads from the campground up the mountain.
An Alligator Juniper along the trail showing the bark pattern that gives the tree its common name.

Valley of Fires BLM Recreation Area

It was a little chilly and breezy to have a picnic table outside at the Valley of Fires, so ate my sandwich in the cab. It was certainly nice enough to take their nature trail with the sun shining as it was. I didn't take my binocs on the hike, though, and that was a mistake. Turns out there were many birds and squirrels and interesting things to look at; at least I did take my long lens.

Three wide-angle photos stitched together to create a panorama of the Nature Trail as seen from the trailhead.
Click here to see it in a larger size.
Actually the nature trail had far more to see than I had imagined - lots of plants and blooming flowers & cacti, lots of birds, and of course, the varied lava formations. It is a surprisingly diverse ecosystem. The nature trail is an easy walk on pavement and fairly level once you descend from the starting point. I recommend it to all even if you only have an hour and are passing by; well worth the small fee. For the more adventurous they allow you to explore off the trail on your own, but be prepared with excellent boots, water, and perhaps a stout walking stick.

The Hedgehog Cacti were blooming all through the area. Sotol yucca are also prevalent.

The last lava flows were formed only about 1500 to 2000 years ago. The lava spread southward 44 miles and covered 125 square miles. At it thickest point it is 160 feet thick. This may be the most recent lava flow in New Mexico, but it is not the largest. El Malpais National Monument near Grants in the western part of the state is larger.

I will post a gallery of photos from Valley of Fires very soon, just check back. Or depending upon when you read this, it may have already been published.

And the Journey Home

Fortunately, the winds were more favorable on my way home. Thanks for joining me for another adventure.


  1. Bill, my wife and I recently visited both three rivers and valley of fires while we were at the spring opening of the Trinity site.. Great sites. Like you, I had wanted to visit three rivers for several years. It is very impressive and easily accessed. We were sorry we'd waited so long. We had stayed last year at valley of fires and did again this year. The "nature walk" is terrific. I don't know what BLM spent on this site and it's ADA accessible trail, but we enjoyed it. The developing ecosystem within the lava site is remarkable. We spent another night "free-grazing" on the Cibola NF near the Salinas Mission site.
    We travel in a F-250 with a Hallmark Milner. Perfect for this kind of travel. Enjoy your blog.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Unknown. The petroglyph site was even better than I'd imagined and the Valley of Fires totally unexpected and delightful. I enjoyed visiting the Salinas Missions, too, on previous day trips from Albuquerque.

  2. Wow Bill! Even though it was cold, it certainly looked like a beautiful place, and an inspired trip destination! I would love to see the petroglyphs (and the birds!)
    PD is leading a tour in the cave creek area this wek, and they got a Crescent Chested Warbler! wooHoo!!
    Happy trails!!


    1. Thanks, Claudie. It was very cold at night and early in the morning, but other than it being so windy the first day, the next two days were pleasant to be out and exploring. I bet PD could have told me what warblers I was hearing, but not seeing.


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